Two names spring to the forefront when watching Q: The Winged Serpent: producer Samuel Z Arkoff and director Larry Cohen. Those boys knew how to deliver some grade-A cheese, the kind of thing that never wins awards but keeps Joe Bob Biggs in a state of near bliss. Q belongs to the 1950s as much as 1982, as evinced by the silly effects, slumming stars and memorable poster art from fantasy legend Boris Vallejo that promises much more than the movie itself can ever deliver. (The poster even sports a prominent typo in the tagline, something that no true grindhouse lover could possibly resist.) It’s definitely a bad movie, but the most delicious sort of bad you can possibly imagine.
Where to begin? Maybe with the jumped-up King Kong rip-off of a plot. An evil cult unleashes the winged serpent Quetzalcoatl on an unsuspecting New York City. It flies about completely unseen by the majority of the populace, noshing on topless sunbathers and the occasional window washer while the police obsess about possible culprits. Small-timer hustler Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) locates the creature’s egg and hopes to parlay it into some cash, running into a no nonsense cop (David Carradine) on the trail of the beast in the process. Mostly, it’s all about the stop-motion monster and the various victims it noisily devours.
The actors occupy far too much screen time considering what we paid to see. Thankfully, they’re fun to watch (I never say no to Richard Roundtree) and the third-rate dialogue attains a hypnotic fascination after a while. Moriarty, a consummate Method actor, has some outbursts that have to be seen to be believed, especially in a film tailor-made for scenery chewing. The actors serve as placeholders for the money shots – the ongoing subplots are only fitfully connected to the actual monster – but they entertain us in a sweaty, fitful manner and the aerial shots of New York from the monster’s viewpoint are elegantly delivered.
Context? There’s none to be had. Cohen goes for the down-and-dirty thrills, embarrassing himself when he tries to muse on the nature of religion or the possibility of his monster being a god. Otherwise, we just sit back, munch our popcorn, and try to figure out which walk-on is going to get eaten next. That’s nothing new… though the fact that it arrived thirty years too late makes it notable in and of itself. The blockbuster mentality was in full swing, and this kind of material – once relegated to second-bill drive-ins – suddenly became must-see entertainment. Q is refreshing in its throwback honesty, its enthusiasm unvarnished by jumped-up effects budgets. It had no ambitions of hundreds of millions of dollars, content to earn what it could from the true believers. It quietly reminds its betters of their roots, helping us to remember the grimy elements of the genre that the post-Star Wars glut tried very hard to forget.
That grants it a certain shabby dignity: honest sleaze peddled honestly to a crowd who presumably appreciates what it has to offer. As straightforward entertainment, it fails miserably, but the right sort will find its humble amusements irresistible. That won’t earn it many prizes, especially with the likes of E.T. and Blade Runner breathing down its neck. But at least it strikes out on its own rather than living in their shadow: a beast of its own making instead of a sad rip-off riding a trend. Q makes a great addition to an old-school monster mash, as much for the era it was released as the guilty pleasures on full display.